For Doreen Natour, making date-filled cookies in the weeks leading up to Easter is a tender reminder of her childhood and a symbolic gesture that calls to mind the reason she celebrates the holiday in the first place.
The recipe she uses is one Natour’s mother and grandmother used in Jerusalem, and the cookies, or ka’ak, are made only at Easter.
Their ring-like shape is intended to call to mind the crown of thorns that the Bible says Jesus wore when he was crucified. As a child, Natour said, her mother would tell her the story as they made them.
“The sweetness of the resurrection is the dates,” Natour said as she carefully used pinchers to make patterns in the dough on each cookie.
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On a recent afternoon, Natour was part of a group of women gathered at St. Andrew Orthodox Church to make the cookies together. St. Andrew has a vibrant Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian population, and the church’s celebration of Easter reflects that heritage.
The Women of St. Andrew’s are making and selling baklava and Easter cookies to raise money for a new church. The congregation has outgrown its building on Higbee Mill Road and plans to build a new one on Brannon Road in Jessamine County.
They held a similar bake sale at Christmas, and in September, the church will host a festival featuring a variety of foods that come from the traditions of families in the congregation.
“All the ladies sit together” to talk and shape the cookies, said Marseil Mashni, president of the women’s group. “It’s a social event.”
They begin by making a dough from semolina, butter, orange blossom water and rose water that gives the cookies a lightly sweet flavor, similar to shortbread.
Each of three types of cookies gets a different shape and filling.
The crown of thorns cookies are made with a sweet date filling made with nutmeg, cinnamon and other ingredients.
Another pastry, ma’amoul, gets a rounded shape that recalls the sponge that was dipped in vinegar and offered to Jesus when he asked for a drink while hanging on the cross. Its walnut filling is less sweet because of that.
A more oblong-shaped ma’amoul represents the tomb in which Jesus’ body was sealed. Its filling is made with pistachios, honey, rose water and sugar, and it’s intended to call to mind the sweetness of the resurrection.
The cookies can be made using a mold or, as Natour prefers, by hand.
“It’s OK if they’re different size, because they’re handmade,” she said. “That’s what makes them special.”
The women went through a 50-pound bag of semolina and estimate that they made 1,000 cookies for the bake sale over several weekends in March.
But sampling them is off limits to the bakers. During Lent, Eastern orthodox Christians abstain from meat and dairy products, so they won’t eat the cookies until Easter Sunday.
The Easter service at St. Andrew, which is open to the public, will begin at 11 p.m. April 15, the Saturday night before Easter morning.
The candlelight service includes communion, singing, a procession outside the church and the story of the resurrection being read from the front steps, said Jeanette Gallaway, who was among those baking cookies and is married to the priest at St. Andrew, the Very Rev. Thomas Gallaway.
At the close of the service, the priest distributes red hard-boiled eggs to the worshipers. The red dye is a reminder of Christ’s blood, and the eggshell represents the sealed tomb, which is opened to reveal new life.
Afterward, parishioners will break their fast with the egg and head down to the church hall for a potluck feast.
“All the meat and dairy that you can think of is downstairs,” Jeanette Gallaway said.
The Easter cookies made by the women of the church are sure to be on the menu.
Gallaway said the fasting leading up to the celebration is intended as a time of prayer, and traditions like making cookies have historically been a means of teaching children Christianity at home.
“The preparation is as important as the celebration,” she said.